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I gave up London job for African artists

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

In 1998 Lisa Armstrong was still in High School when an economic crisis hit her native country Zimbabwe. Just like most families in Zimbabwe at the time, the turbulence of the economic hardship hit her family hard.

Her father, then an engineer lost his job. The earnings of women, including her mother and grandmother who mostly supplemented family’s incomes through craftwork such as knitting, baking and sewing were suppressed.

The situation at home got her thinking about coming up with a platform where artwork made by women would be sold to bigger markets, attract higher value and earn a livelihood for their families.

It made much sense then, but Lisa found herself crippled on where to start and how to make the idea economically viable.

After years of hard work, and research she finally set up Ugogo Africa, an e-commerce site that helps artists sell their crafts online without necessarily having a bank account, but this time round not in Zimbabwe, but in Kenya.

Tell me about Ugogo

First, it would be difficult to talk about Ugogo without tracing the journey of how it came about. The idea was inspired by the economic downtime in Zimbwabwe. In early 2000 I went to London for my university education still mulling on how to solve the problems back home.  

It’s while in London that I bought a domain name ready to set up an e-commerce site, but I realised that selling the small volumes my mother and other women produced online did not make any economic sense. Transporting goods from Zimbabwe to London would not be cost efficient unless we mass-produced.

So how did you address that?

As you can see coming up with the solution to that impediment took quite a while. I completed my university education by paying for my own fees because of the tough economic times and landed a well-paying marketing job in London. In 2013 I decided to revisit the idea.

Fortunately in 2014, I landed a scholarship in London School of Economics where I had a chance to refine the granular details on how to implement the idea.

How did you finally settle on Kenya as your starting point?

In 2016 after completing the scholarship, I left my job and came to Nairobi to do ground research and test the model. There were five countries that I thought of setting up including Nigeria, Ghana, and Zimbabwe, but Kenya stood out for several reasons.

The first was the success of Mpesa and other technologies that had been developed around M-Pesa to enable people in informal sectors do business. Kenya is setting the pace for technology innovation in the continent, especially in payment delivery systems and the best part is that these innovations are mainly focused on improving people’s lives.

I was also attracted to the vibrant crafts industry, which meant that there was a wide range of commodities to sell.  The work to set up the platform started in 2017.

And now back to what Ugogo is all about

The platform enables artists sell their crafts online even without a bank account. This is made possible by an integration payment gateway, which allows payment to happen between conventional banking systems and M-Pesa.

We are working with a pool of artisans making crafts such as sandals, earrings and also designing clothes to enable them sell goods to wider markets at a higher premium.

We do not charge them to sell on our platform; we only deduct a small percentage after the sales. The target market for now is Kenya and London with hope of expanding to other countries. The platform is still at the pre-launch stage with plans to go live in the coming months.

What challenges do you face

One of the greatest challenges initially was finance. In 2016 I received a grant from Publicis, a French advertising company, which served as the initial investment. It was also tough leaving my job and venturing into the business, especially considering fear of the unknown.

I was at a good place in my career then commuting between London and Miami. The job was good on paper, but not my passion. Giving up the stability was difficult nonetheless. I was also engaged at the time, but due to the distance I had to make a choice between the relationship and the start-up.

Who inspires you?

My grandmother; her kindness, hard work, generosity and strength are just incredible.  She imparted on me valuable skills such as knitting, sewing and baking.

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